Thursday, February 24, 2011
Leaders learn about Brownfields program
By SUE WATSON
A number of leaders in the business community and government were introduced to the Brownfields Program, a project that assesses site cleanup issues in local communities.
Jere Trey Hess, program coordinator with Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, office of pollution control, introduced the program driven by federal grant monies. Local governments must apply for the grants and make a case for the need to assess sites for potential toxicity or pollution, Hess said.
Mississippi has not been getting its share of the grants, he said, and MDEQ wants to remedy that. He said the very competitive grant process, which sees 700 applications a year and makes about 200 awards, is not seeing successful applications from the state. One in three applications nationwide are accepted while only one in 23 applications from Mississippi are awarded.
The problem, partly, is with the quality of the grant application and lack of lead time in preparing applications, he said.
“There is real estate out there where there is a perception that there is an issue with contamination,” Hess said. “It could be an old gas station, an old dry cleaner, an old pest control site, an old co-op, even an old hotel that has asbestos, pigeon poop and underground heating oil tanks.”
The catch is that banks require a new business going into an old property to sometimes get a Phase I environmental assessment, before the bank will give a loan. The environmental assessment is similar to a home inspection required for a home loan. The banks want to make sure they are not loaning out money on a lemon.
Twelve communities in Mississippi have landed Brownfields grants – places like Hernando, South Delta Planning and Development District, Lauderdale County, Moss Point, Philadelphia and Shuqualak.
Not a lot of communities in the northeast and north-central areas of the state have applied for these assessment grants.
Hess was in town at the invitation of alderman Harvey Payne.
“Lots of cities use old plants and places to redevelop city centers,” Hess said. “We are working to get communities interested. The Mississippi Municipal League and mayors are interested. We know about the big bad sites in the state. Holly Springs does not have any.”
The assessment of potential toxic waste sites in Holly Springs can be included in the update of the master plan to help decide if there are any potential pitfalls in the plan, Hess said.
Brownfields grants are an effort by the EPA to look at the sustainability of whole communities. Building a network with other agencies like the Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mississippi Development Authority, EPA and Main Street helps small communities to get going.
He encouraged the city and county to work together and build on community programs.
Help with grant writing will be offered at the MML mayor’s conference in June. Areas apply for the grant in October and grants are awarded the following April.
The goal should be to redevelop an area and to find money to do it, Hess said. The Brownfields grant looks to find any sites that need cleaning up but allows no dollars toward the cleanup itself. But the estimate lets leaders know what problems they have and how much it will cost to clean it up.
Dr. Charlotte L. Keys, executive director of the foundation, “Jesus People Against Pollution,” in Columbia, said community involvement is the key to building grassroots consensus on problem solving.
“Any successful city and county governments are successful because they understand the need for collaboration and cohesiveness,” Keys said. “No one needs to be left out.”
A superfund waste site in Columbia was headed into widespread litigation when the community decided to mitigate rather than litigate, she said.
Keys said she is working on a summit - a community involvement and engagement summit labeled “Environmental Justice.”
“I’ve traveled the world and there is no place like home,” Keys said. “Everybody needs equal access to have clean air and water and no one’s property needs to be contaminated.”
The Reichold Chemical site was the superfund site in Columbia. The company had buried thousands of drums of chemical waste at an 81-acre site in Marion County after purchasing the property from a company that had operated a wood derivatives plant. The property had been used for that purpose for about 50 years with various owner/operators.
An explosion at the Reichold facility after two years operation in 1977 destroyed most of the process facility. An EPA investigation discovered 600 surface drums, two contaminated on-site ponds and several areas of contaminated soil.
The site was removed from the National Priorities List of sites in 2000 after the chemical company and previous owners of the site performed all the required cleanup and testing, including showing that ground water is not endangered now.
JPAP, which formed in 1992, was one of the most active community organizations in community outreach and was awarded a technical assistance grant for the site.
Payne said an old lagoon on Rising Star Road could be turned back to greenspace or a recreational area. Old lagoons could be possible properties to be considered for site assessments, he said.
Hess said old buildings that the community wants to rehabilitate would also be potential sites to assess for asbestos contamination.
“The start of this is to tell your community story,” he said. “You must tell a story that differentiates you from the other 700 applicants out there.”
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